From what I understand, most pre-industrial peoples spent at most a few hours a day securing their livelihood. Simple dwellings don't require much complicated upkeep, subsistence agriculture isn't in itself that time-consuming, and when clothes and utensils are kept closer to necessity than to opulence, they don't require that much time to make or repair, either.
So when it comes to understanding the place of work in Zen practice, I have to wonder if contemporary takes on the matter don't cloud the issue with a sense of industriousness that is more a 19th century European/American invention than anything intrinsically related to Zen.
Today we bought a couple of trees for the yard. After a very pleasant shopping experience (we got a nice discount, the store was a wonder to behold, and the baked goods sold by the French nun that we got for the trip back were delicious), another resident and I dug the holes and planted the trees, then he took off, and I went and picked up a few more plants for that area and put them in. Once the sprinkler was on, I was done, too.
We didn't punch a clock, and we didn't keep working to fill up a set time allotted for working. We just did the job and left it at that. Last Sunday when sangha members washed windows, the same format held sway; we did the work, and then we stopped. Whenever I was working in the yard or painting rooms or shoveling snow or raking leaves I did the job just fine without anyone making sure I was keeping properly busy.
I've come into contact with large training centers that have (a lot of) allotted hours for work, with precise start and stop times, break times, etc. If one finishes one's job, one is to go to the work supervisor and get some more to do. My guess is that there are days when some busy work is created just to keep hands from becoming idle. From the other side, once the bell sounds, work stops, no matter what stage it's in, and that's it for the day.
I don't know. Something about that just seems unnecessarily contrived. Who works like that?
I will be the first to agree that the model of practice should not be one where hired hands do all the work so the "spiritual elite" don't have to bother. I wholeheartedly affirm the importance of everyone getting their hands dirty, their arms sore, their patience tested in getting the common work done. No one will ever hear an argument against work from me.
I guess I'm just glad to be in a smaller kind of place, were people can see and tackle the jobs that need doing in a much more, I don't know, adult manner. Tasks are blended into an otherwise full life, and no one is lording it over the others with a clock. When there's work to do, we do it. Some days there's more, and some days there's less. When the work is done, it's done, and we turn to other matters.
No one would ever notice the difference.
Or maybe they would. Last year a resident from another center stayed here for a few days. He was wondering how many we had on staff. At the time, it was just me in the house, and maybe on a Sunday a few hands would help straighten up the zendo or rake leaves. When I told him that such was the extent of our "staff" he was astounded. "But we have x people," he said, "We have soji every day, and our place doesn't look anywhere near as nice as this!"